Branding Food Safety

by Barbara Young
When it comes to battling microbes, IA-based West Liberty Foods’ showcase sliced meats plant has more going for it than meets the eye — its pioneering processing system may soon earn trademark status.
Product contamination cases continue to force a range of food-safety initiatives upon the meat protein industry and its manufacturing processes. Iowa-based West Liberty Foods’ (WLF) approach pushes the clean-room concept to a higher level of purity, marking the beginning of a brand new chapter in the manual on food-safety tools developed over the years.
The Iowa town of Mount Pleasant is home to WLF’s expanding 55,000-square-foot sliced meat facility, designed, equipped, staffed, and programmed to put some hospitals to shame.
The fully automated plant with a staff of 265 members — soon to include 25,000 square feet of added space upon completion of an addition now under construction — handles cheese and sliced processed meat products exclusively, including turkey, chicken, beef, and pork developed to meet customer proprietary specification for retail and foodservice distribution.
The three-shift operation, one dedicated to cleaning and sanitizing, produced 3.5-million pounds of product in 30 days by the end of February. A modern materials-handling system further minimizes food-contamination risks.
So special is this facility that its owners — members of the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative — recently petitioned the U.S. Patent Office requesting trademark status for the plant’s construction design and processing systems. Support comes in the nods of approval by Cook and Thurber, a leading independent food-safety auditing firm, and USDA, reports Ed Garrett, president and chief operating officer of West Liberty Foods and its three processing facilities.
Multiple hurdles built into the facility and its food-safety systems act as a multiplier in reducing risks from the moment raw material enters the building until the finished product lands in the hands of consumers. “We have to engineer out problems we’ve learned about over the years,” Garrett says. “We’ve put enough hurdles in this [Mount Pleasant] plant so that by the time product gets to the slicer it’s as safe as it can get.”
Moreover, Garrett says the more than $30-million construction and equipment cost was 20-percent higher due to food-safety design considerations.
A key aspect of the company’s critical control procedures involves putting more than 50 miles between its slaughter facility in West Liberty, IA, and the Mount Pleasant further-processing operation, thus eliminating the risk of employee foot traffic introducing pathogens through cross contamination.
Moreover, job applicants are required to complete a 16-hour food-safety training course administered by professionals from Iowa State University — this before moving to the job candidate phase for a position at the Mount Pleasant facility.
Applicants spend their own time in these classes with no assurance they will be hired by WLF, which administrators view not only as proof of interest but also as their opportunity to hire experienced people concerning food-safety knowledge.
Diana Mendez, a successful candidate on the job at the plant close to nine months, says WLF’s food-safety course not only prepared her for a position in the company’s Mount Pleasant plant, it also changed her home habits.
“After seeing the movie about the dangers of bacteria, I’m a lot cleaner at home,” Mendez says. “I know how important it is to wash my hands after going to the bathroom because I could contaminate my family.”
Working at the plant means constantly focusing on cleanliness, Mendez notes. “You have to be clean personally, that’s most important,” she says. “You have to wash your hands all the time and wear proper gear. You can’t touch garbage or your own face. If you go to another place in the plant, you have to change everything so you don’t contaminate the food.”
What does she know about specific pathogens? Pausing only a moment, a smiling Mendez begins listing what she learned beginning with Listeria. “They told us that’s a very bad one because it makes people sick and they can die,” she says.
Food-Safety Philosophy
Acceptance of certain quality standards permissible in the past is waning in the same way that the computer industry’s hardware and software equipment ends up in the trash heap marked as obsolete before some users can make their final payments.
This assessment is not lost on Mike Whitman, plant manager in Mount Pleasant since the facility began operating last year in June. “You have to be willing and ready to change to keep up in this industry,” he says. “It’s important to have a whole new mindset concerning the right equipment and people to make food safety the first priority.”
On the equipment side, WLF staffers shun slicers made using sheets of stainless welded together because they do not measure up to the company’s food-safety standards. “Over time welds crack allowing migration of microbes into and outside the body of the machine or else into the crack,” Whitman notes. “We chose slicers built so that the entire cabinet is fashioned from a single piece and then welded robotically not by humans.”
Inside the Plant
In the same way that prisoners are confined to rows of contiguous individual “cells,” slicing and packaging takes place in self-contained rooms in Mount Pleasant with dedicated filtered and pressurized air, water supply, and clean-in-place drain systems. A single entry-and-exist door provides another measure of controlling access to each of 12 cells, also supplied with maintenance tools that never leave the room.
Employees are completely covered in uniforms consisting of coveralls, hoods, facemasks, boots, and gloves — all of which must be changed or cleaned thoroughly before returning to a cell. An anti-microbial solution is sprayed on coveralls, which are laundered in North Carolina. Floors and ceilings also receive a “proprietary” anti-microbial coating.
The plant’s laundry bill reportedly runs 300-percent higher than normal under WLF’s new food-safety system.
After first washing and sanitizing their hands thoroughly, plant personnel attired in the proper gear access each cell through an automatic boot-washing system with brushes on each side and underfoot. A door opens automatically leading to the hallway entrance to each cell, removing the necessity to touch them.
Product, delivered to the plant precooked and chilled in non-penetrating casing material, also goes through an additional food-safety process before it is ready for slicing. Encased logs are washed in a sanitizing solution, and logs are treated in a pasteurization tunnel to kill any pathogens on the surface after casings come off.
As Garrett points out, these steps in the Mount Pleasant program, among others, represent the parent company’s commitment to creating a “food-safety hospital.”
Explaining the operation during a recent tour of the facility, Whitman demonstrates the coup de grâce – a removalble panel allowing for equipment delivery or repair without disturbing other cells or shutting off their power. “We simply pull the plug and set up the cell while the rest of the operation continues without disruption,” Whitman explains pointing to one of the panels about twice as wide as ordinary doors.
“Consultants coming through here are amazed and tell us there is nothing like this plant in the entire world,” Whitman concludes.